dealing with mental illness, trying to dispel stigma
About 30 years ago I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety, 20 years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD (I'm a survivor of domestic violence). Just like everyone else, there is so much more to me than those labels. I'm a wife, mother, grandmother, and sister. Baking bread, writing, and drawing are my creative outlets. Chocolate is my kryptonite.
There’s a stranger living in my bathroom. She’s there when I get out of the shower every morning. Her furtive glances catch my eye, but I quickly look away. I don’t like the array of emotions I see play across her face. This is not a woman I know, not the woman I expect to see.
She’s disappointed with the body she sees. She doesn’t mind the gray hair, the sunspots on the once pretty face, the softening of the jawline. But that body, how did that happen?
I try so hard not to look directly in her tear-filled eyes, for I will feel helpless. I see sadness, heartache, loneliness. But it’s not what you think, because I’m certain there are people who love her. But I am not one of them. I have no idea how to give her the acceptance and love she needs to heal.
This one warrants a trigger warning for survived suicide attempt.
After over twenty years of fighting my demons, I had enough. My depression had become treatment-resistant, and bipolar depression is the absolute worst form of this insidious black fog. My brain didn’t care that I had a loving husband and family, that I was finally financially secure, that the stressors in my life had been reduced to a minimum.
I can’t really remember the chain of events, other than the fact that my husband was washing the dishes after dinner, and I walked into the kitchen behind him, grabbed my bottle of Klonopin and my container of blades that I use to slash bread before baking, and walked out the door without him knowing. It was October, it was cold and damp from a recent rain, I was wearing a t-shirt and pajama pants, and I was barefoot. This plan had been brewing in my head for days, I knew exactly how this would work, and I strode out of the house quickly without making a noise. The tears were pouring down my face, the only light outside in rural southern Ohio was the moon, and my brain was on autopilot towards the final destination of peace and quiet…forever. Past the garden, the skeletons of the long-dead corn stalks and tomato cages seemingly pointing the way, straight into the woods. The ground was cold and wet, covered in leaves, the pain of the sticks barely registered. But then I stepped on something sharp and looked down. The moon illuminated the broken bones of some long-dead animal. I could go no further. Pills in one hand, blades in the other, I stood there staring at those bones, wondering if that’s what the searchers would eventually find. The miasma of the insidious beast gripping my brain muted the sounds of gut-wrenching sobs; I didn’t even realize they were coming from me. I have no idea how long I stood there, feeling the black fog enveloping me, not hearing my husband’s voice calling my name. Then his arms were tight around me. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you, I’m not letting go.” Oh I begged him to let go; I was so tired of fighting. But he kept saying the same thing over and over in a very quiet voice while he took the instruments of destruction out of my hands, slowly turned me around and guided me back to the house, blazing with lights. He sat me down on the side of the bed, washed the dirt and leaves from the woods off of my feet with a warm washcloth, and lay down beside me with his arms wrapped tight around my shivering body. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you, I won’t let go.” I fell asleep to that loving lullaby, and in the morning I started all over, one step a time, fighting away the demons once again.
Those three words, “I’ve got you,” did more for me than “I love you,” “It’s okay,” “Everything will be fine.” That was about five years ago. I still struggle, I still think about disappearing every day, but I don’t…I keep fighting.
they must be tired of this
but they won’t let me go
they don’t feel the inky fog
enveloping me deep into my bones
they can’t feel the ache of exhaustion
in every fiber of my being
they don’t see the loop of film noir
unceasingly invading my brain
they don’t hear the invectives
reminding me of why
I need to go
sleep with no dreams
and no awakening
I’ve been baking bread for about 20 years, and have found that the thing I love most about it (besides eating!) is giving it way. Being a perfectionist, I would immediately toss out anything that didn’t meet my standards when I first began learning. A friend of mine saw this and was horrified, telling me there were missionaries living in my apartment complex that would love to have homemade bread. The look of joy on the face of the young man when I handed him what I felt was an inferior batch of English muffins, hooked me on spreading yeasty love.
Fast-forward 10 years when I first met my husband. He was making sandwiches for a picnic we were going on and pulled out a loaf of Walmart “Everything French Bread” (at least it wasn’t Wonder Bread!). Not wanting to offend, I kept my opinion of his bread to myself and decided to surprise him the following week with something a little better. I devised a recipe where I added minced onion to the dough, and sprinkled the top with sesame seeds and poppy seeds, about three years later I moved in…coincidence?
About a month ago, I came across a woman on Instagram who made gift bags full of wonderful things she made which she sent to people who were struggling with mental illness. I watched her push through a particularly bad episode of depression by staying on task with making her beautiful ceramic dishes and sending out her gift bags. Depression had a hold on me at the same time, and I hadn’t baked any bread for months. Unfortunately bread baking is the first thing I stopped doing whenever my depression would envelop me. I started thinking about my friends who have received my bread in the past and how pleased they were (one friend called me the Bread Fairy because I would just pop by with a fresh loaf of bread). Often friends would ask if they could buy a loaf, and I won’t take money but I ask them to simply do something nice for someone else. I put a post on Facebook, naming my project Knead Through Depression, and told any locals that if they wanted bread to message me with what they wanted. The response was wonderful, and my depression was slightly lifted with each loaf I delivered.
My depression is still dragging on me, but I try to make time each week to bake a few loaves of bread…this week I need to replenish my husband’s bread.
If you’re interested, I have a page with pictures of bread I’ve baked and resources I use.
What nobody told me about having adult children, is that they will inadvertently cause me to examine my own childhood traumas as well as magnify my failings as a parent through self-reflection. While I do understand that I did the best I could with the knowledge that was available at the time while dealing with my own mental illness, I see the amazing advocacy my eldest daughter does for her sons and can’t help but get stuck in a downward spiral of if-only.
These two strong women have fought their way to adulthood despite the rocks that have been pelted at them along the way. There were so many nights in the ER that I believed my younger daughter wouldn’t make it into adulthood, yet she has come so far through her own fight to survive. A few years ago my older daughter left her own domestic violence situation and has been fighting tooth and nail for her boys to get the help they need (while going to graduate school). Through them, I have learned about late diagnosed women with autism spectrum, autism in general, Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes, and a variety of other physical and mental issues I had no idea even existed.
Yesterday, my younger daughter (28 yrs old) received a diagnosis confirming that she is on the autism spectrum and my eldest brought up an interesting point: “I imagine if I were you I’d be thinking what if I had caught this earlier? And that would be difficult to feel.” Of course I replied flippantly “That’s the least of my guilt for my children.” But then I started to really think about the ramifications of my lack of knowledge as a young parent as well as the insufficient resources of my own parents, even though my father was a physician. We did not have the internet, nor any way to research symptoms or diagnoses other than to rely on our peers or our physicians.
Each time one of my girls has told me about a new diagnosis, I have examined my own life and frailties. Once I accepted that it’s pointless to berate myself for failings as a parent over which I had no control, I started wondering if there’s really any point of bringing these things up with my own physicians or psych team at this stage of my life. While these diagnoses could explain quite a few things about my ridiculous body and brain that have never quite made sense, I can only see that this knowledge would be helpful if I can find a way to incorporate what I’ve learned moving forward on my own. I have physically and mentally had to adapt to my limitations for so long, would having what one might consider accurate diagnoses really make a difference? And other than being required for insurance, can attaching a DSM-5 approved word to a complicated individual really help improve one’s quality of life?
As I battle the what-ifs, I find myself mired in this cesspool of labels, desperately trying to make sense of the remainder of my life.